Fire destroys part of The Village encampment, as protesters call for safer conditions for the homeless
on September 11, 2018
Early Tuesday morning, 37 residents of The Village homeless encampment in East Oakland lost their homes or belongings to a fire that swept through the camp. The fire destroyed about a third of the camp, leaving dozens of tents and tiny houses still standing.
Officials from the Oakland Fire Department said firefighters and Oakland police officers responded to the fire around 2:45 a.m. Residents of the encampment were evacuated, and no injuries were reported from the fire. Fire inspectors say the cause is still unknown.
“I looked out of my tent and there was fire going straight into the air,” said James Moore Jr., a resident of the Village, who has lived in the area for over four years. “I walked down the street to get away from it. This isn’t the first fire. There were no more fire extinguishers. We used them on the last two small fires.”
“That’s the second, maybe third fire in that exact spot. There’s been a lot of fires,” said resident Leonard Williams, standing in the Village’s outdoor kitchen. Williams said he was asleep when the fire broke out, and pointed out that his gray wooden tiny house is only about ten tent spaces from the fire. “If the wind was blowing this way, I would have had to evacuate, because it would have taken out our houses like that,” he said.
By mid-morning, the fire was long out, but the air carried a strong odor of burned wood and rubber. Helicopters flew over the debris. City of Oakland workers wearing yellow used rakes to dig through the rubble and removed burned beds and large pieces of wood.
Organizations like East Oakland Community Project and The Red Cross were on site to provide food and water, although residents complained that the relief agency had only brought cold coffee and sandwiches, rather than blankets. (Later in the day, Joe DeVries, assistant to the city administrator, said Red Cross workers had since started offering blankets and personal hygiene kits to anyone in need of them.) Workers from the East Oakland Community Project and Bay Area Community Services were also present working to provide emergency housing for those affected by the fire.
The Village, located in the 2200 block of E. 12 Street, is one of Oakland’s largest homeless encampments. The area is a safe haven site sanctioned by the city, where tiny houses for homeless people are allowed to be built on previously-unused land.
According to a press release from the Oakland Police Department (OPD), police officers located at the scene a deceased adult male near a part of the encampment spared by the fire. The release stated that the man had no signs of trauma and that the department is investigating the incident as an unexplained death. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau is working to determine how the man died, and an OPD investigation is still ongoing.
Village coordinator Anita de Asis, who goes by Needa Bee, has long criticized city officials for overcrowding at the camp by moving in people who had previously lived at nearby encampments, including, she said, sending more people to the camp in August. “The city overpopulated the land. They dumped over 50 people there. We have a man who was told that if he leaves and is found using another space for housing he will arrested,” she said.
“It was unsanitary, dangerous, and inhumane to send that many people to area at once,” she continued. “There is already enough trauma from homelessness and the city moving people or illegally evicting them isn’t helping that.” Bee went on to say that some of the people in the encampment want to leave but have no choice but to stay. “A lot of those people have been shuffled around by the city of Oakland and dumped there. They wasn’t asked if they wanted to go there,” said Bee. “They didn’t have a choice. It goes against their human rights. It’s illegal to perform cruel and unusual punishment to homeless people. It’s illegal to evict, shuffle, or arrest homeless people because they don’t have permanent housing.”
To help those who no longer have somewhere to stay, DeVries said the city is attempting to locate emergency shelter beds for as many of the 37 displaced people as possible. As of 3 p.m., DeVries said 15 beds had been secured, and the search for more continues.
DeVries said the city has outreach teams on the ground trying to get an accurate list of people displaced by the fire, although doing so has been challenging. “The list is a little shaky, and it’s not the most verifiable, but we’re working with it,” DeVries said.
“That encampment was not safe. There were too many people with way too much debris packed together, and really it’s a miracle that no one was injured,” DeVries said. “It’s an example of why we need to better manage encampments. We can’t just allow them to fester like this.”
By early afternoon, about 30 people carrying a megaphone and homemade signs on neon poster board stood outside City Hall for a gathering to raise awareness about homelessness. The event had been planned three weeks ago by Nino Parker, who is homeless himself. But after the fire at The Village, the gathering’s focus changed to express the protesters’ outrage at how the fire could have happened. “If we had decent housing this wouldn’t happen,” said Parker. The Village, he said, “is like a big pile of timber.”
Holding a megaphone and a shofar, a ram’s horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies, Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan joined the protesters. “This morning there was a fire. Let’s be clear, this is a sign of the neglect and abuse that has been going on,” she said. She added that addressing “homelessness needs to be a priority of the government.”
Mayoral candidate Cat Brooks, who joined the protest, shook with anger as she described the way she felt after hearing of the fire at The Village. “The responsibility for what happened to The Village falls right there,” she said as she pointed a finger behind her at City Hall. “I don’t have any problem saying her name. Libby Schaaf, shame on you!”
Schaff’s spokesperson, Justin Berton, said he could not respond to Brooks’ statement, saying that is a question for Schaaf’s re-election campaign.
He did say that Schaaf, who was San Francisco on Tuesday attending the Global Climate Action Summit, was made aware of the fire early this morning and is glad that no one was seriously hurt. He added that the fire “shows that the encampments are incredibly dangerous places and incredibly flammable. That’s why we’re doing our best to remediate the situation.”
Robert “Bobby” Quinones was one of the lead organizers who helped start the first version of The Village encampment in 2016, before it moved to its current location on E. 12th Street in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Along with Bee, he is a coordinator for the project. Speaking in front of City Hall, he called the Village “a refuge” for homeless people who otherwise get moved around the city. “One-third of The Village got burned down. So thats 37 people who are now homeless again,” he said. “They don’t have tents, not even blankets to sleep at night. Nothing. We need to approach this problem.”
Quinones thinks the fire could have been started by someone living in the camp. “They cannot get along, especially living in such a state–you know, filthy, forced to live with each other,” he said. “I would think it was done to get back at one another.”
Village resident Williams also said he thinks the fire was deliberately set. “You could tell it was well planned out,” he said. “If you want to set a fire you want to have a lot of wood and a lot of fuel and it will burn heavy. And that’s what that fire did. Whoever set that fire intentionally did it and they didn’t think about the lives that could have been lost.”
“A lot of people here are trying to straighten their lives and one bad apple could spoil the whole bunch, you know what I mean?” he continued. “ Like me, I got a house and I don’t want to lose my house.”
Williams also blamed the spread of the blaze on the debris that had built up around the camp. “You can’t have the clutter,” he said. “The main thing is, around everybody’s house, everyone should have some kind of like, you know, clean your area. With the clutter, it spreads the fuel. Once the fire starts burning, it’s gonna spread from fuel to boom boom boom.” He indicated a part of the camp that he said was “like a maze.” “Everything was connected,” he said, “so once the fire started there was no way it would not spread.”
The California Department of Transportation owns the property where the encampment currently sits, but the city was planning to relocate The Village by November to make way for CalTrans, which intends to use the lot as a staging area for an upcoming 23rd Avenue bridge construction project.
“We have to come up with an alternative location to move people out and close that encampment down in the next two months as it is,” DeVries said, “and this just puts greater focus on that effort.”
Bee said that since the camp’s kitchen and tiny homes were not affected by the fire, the homeless encampment would remain where it is until the city of Oakland can offer a new location. “None of the [tiny] homes from The Village were burned. They will stay there until they have to leave. We were told in March that we would be losing the land, but there is not housing for these people. There still is no permanent solution, just more shuffling,” Bee said.
“The city of Oakland has to stop making decisions based on money and start making decisions based on human rights,” Bee added. “Things are only going to get worse because there is no money in housing homeless people, so the city does not value that.”
Later on Tuesday, many protesters sat in as the city council’s Life Enrichment Committee, a subgroup that works on quality of life issues, discussed homelessness in the city. The committee heard a report filed by the assistant city administrator on actions taken so far towards a resolution passed in April that called for that office to find available public land and funding for homeless shelters. DeVries said that while the city has made headway towards some of the actions, like building the Tuff Sheds encampment in May, the rest are largely unmet.
“Tuff Sheds is a public relation joke,” audience member James Vann, of the Oakland Tenants Union, said during the meeting’s public comment session, as many others in the audience snapped to signal their support. “Housing 40 to 50 people isn’t going to solve homelessness.”
Councilmember-at-large Kaplan asked DeVries, “If we declared it was an emergency because of an earthquake that left 6,000 homeless, would we still be here six months later without any action?”
She also expressed impatience that the city administrator’s office has not yet identified suitable encampment sites, and urged them to prioritize The Village, “because it’s the one in urgent need.”
DeVries told the committee that his office has been searching for a site but has “come up short.” He said he’s very aware the site needs to be moved and he’s asked staff to “double down and even comb through private sites that we can potentially lease. That process is underway right now.”
Speakers from the audience supported Kaplan’s frustration that more has not been done by the city administrator’s office. “They were supposed to come back with actions. Sir, you were supposed to come back with stuff to do,” said Oakland resident Oscar Fuentes, turning around to point at DeVries.
Judy Elkan of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group, a nonprofit that has been working in the encampments, said that since Oakland declared a state of emergency on homelessness, “it’s been a year and a half. If the Hills burned down tomorrow and 10,000 people in Oakland were displaced, would we wait a year and a half to give them a piece of land to pitch a tent?”
With tears in her eyes, Jenna DeBellis explained to the council committee that she is homeless. She said, “Right now, it’s hard to work and be homeless. … I worked when I first got homeless and I heard from somebody that my voice doesn’t count.” Getting up from her seat on the commission, assistant city administrator Maraskeshia Smith offered DeBellis a tissue.
Kaplan called for the city administrator to come back with plans for RV camper sites, engagement with nonprofits and faith-based organizations, trash removal and sanitation and to see if the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot can be used for homeless shelters.
The committee will meet again and hear another report from DeVries on October 9.
Carla Williams and Jessica Alvarenga reported from the scene of the fire. Ali DeFazio and Katey Rusch reported from Oakland City Hall. Casey Smith contributed additional reporting.
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: email@example.com.